When I’m not excited about any of the characters or stories in my head and often just to keep in writing shape, I do writing exercises. There’s a million of them out there online, but I’m trying to get through What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. I also like and struggle with the ones in the back of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I find his exercises more difficult which is a good thing.
Here’s exercise #25 from What If?
Observe how the following speech fragments convey a sense of accent or national, regional, race, class, or cultural distinctions mainly through word choice and arrangement.
My mama dead. She died screaming and cussing. – ALICE WALKER, The Color Purple
All in all, Harry Laines’ wedding was one of the worst events in my experience, tragic in society. – NANCY LEMANN, Lives of the Saints
Here are mine:
First character: based on Jane, 30s Londoner living in NYC, actress, from blue collar background.
“And even when the village bobby was standing there askin’ him straight out, ‘Where’re the drugs, son?’ – even then Steve just held his ground, looked the cop right back in his eye and says, ‘I don’t know, but if you find any, make sure ya give me a ring, love?’” Jane cackled. “That’s real talent, that.”
Second character based on Dayna – 20s white, Jewish girl overly concerned with how she appears to men
“They [the band] so great. I mean, they were so great, you know what I mean?” she said. “The lead singer was just so, like, mesmerizing. Like, yeah, like literally mesmerizing. Everybody around me was, like, dancing and moshing, but I was just standing there, and it felt like my head was the only part of me that could move. It was like the singer was a marionette controlling me and he was just making me bob my head up and down, but the rest of me was just like totally frozen. They were so great. Isn’t ‘mesmerize’ a great word? Mes. Mer. Ize.”
Third character based on nobody, but my fascination with black men from the South pre-integration
“Why I need to make any more money for? Got food in the garden and ain’t ever cold enough you cain’t sleep outside. Clothes still fit me. And at’s all you need. I ‘member the schoolteacher taught us that: all you need’s food, clothing and a place to sleep.”
Fourth character based on the many white, hipster boys I know who grew up in the eighties
“She was coming on to me all night. I mean, I’m talking coming. on. to. me, y’know? No subtlety. And at one point, I get up to the bathroom. I take a piss, wash my hands whatever and open the door. And she’s there waiting for me and she just pushes me into the bathroom and starts making out with me. I mean, she was cute, whatever, but, you know, that ain’t how I do. So I put my hands on her shoulders and say, ‘Slow your roll, baby,’ and walk out.”
Fifth character, some French lady refusing a mimosa at brunch
“Non, merci,” she said. “I cannot to drink in the day. I am always getting the headache.”
This felt too easy, but dialogue exercises always feel too easy. I think it comes from years of acting. It’s pretty easy for me to get a character’s head in my voice. I had to use real-life people to get me warmed up, but I kinda liked that. That would be a good exercise: take the speech pattern of someone you know and develop a character.